This month is conference season. I’m traveling to four state music teachers conventions—performing, presenting and meeting fellow teachers. I so enjoy the interaction with teachers from around the country and the chance to learn from one another by sharing our common challenges and ideas. One of the top challenges is understanding and conveying basic biomechanics of piano playing.
I’ve found one way to initiate a conversation about this important subject is to ask, “Where are the muscles that move your fingers up and down?” In my experience, most musicians have never considered how our fingers work.
I happened to learn this information over twenty years ago as I rehabilitated from tendonitis with my new teacher, Yoheved Kaplinsky. (And I recall her giving a lecture where she acknowledged, “Nobody told me I had flexors and extensors until I was twenty-five!”)
Why is it important for pianists to understand that forearm flexors draw the fingers toward the palm, and forearm extensors allow fingers to extend? Because a simple demonstration of how these muscles work quickly proves the fallacy of:
- “making all of the fingers the same length”
- “curling” the fingers
- “striking” the keys with “high fingers”
and other long-held tenets of piano pedagogy that run counter to the body’s natural biomechanics.
Unit 1: Foundations—Opposable Muscles, from The 3-D Piano Method
Forearm flexors and extensors are opposable, or antagonistic. When we grasp a tea cup, hair brush, or baseball, joints are stabilized by engaging these muscles simultaneously. These types of tasks rarely present difficulty—although the risks go up when grasping a tennis racket or even a pencil when muscle exertion is too great, or lasts too long.
For pianists, serious problems can develop when we grasp and attempt to play with speed at the same time. In this instance, antagonistic muscles co-contract continuously, effectively shortening and fatiguing them. As the video clip demonstrates, playing in a free, well-coordinated manner is only possible by using flexors and extensors primarily in alternation, with free movement from the metacarpophalangeal joints, or knuckles.
Fingers should be gently curved, but not curled—and “making fingers the same length” cramps the hand and leads to unnecessary effort and increased risk of injury, especially for the serious, hardworking pianist. Also, beauty of tone and evenness of rhythm are greatly compromised.
Most of us were taught to play with one or more of the above approaches, with the valiant goal of making the fingers as ‘independent’ as possible. Unfortunately, these paradigms of piano pedagogy are similar to running with one’s toes curled! In fact, for our fingers to play complex music, they do need to be somewhat independent of one another. However, by effectively employing three-dimensional movement throughout the body, interdependence of the fingers, hands, arms, torso, legs, and feet develops and facilitates better music-making at all levels. Tonal beauty, vibrant rhythm, and a freer imagination are much easier to accomplish when the body is not forced to work against itself.
Over the past few years, I’ve been fortunate to work with many pianists via videoconferencing, workshops, and the spread of The 3-D Piano Method. It’s been exciting to witness teachers courageously reexamine concepts they were ‘always told,’ or ‘continued to teach’ until recently. After an event in Texas, one woman shared how she’d ‘done a 180′ with her teaching since experimenting with this pedagogy. She, like many others, reports impressive results. When teachers and students move out of prior comfort zones where the illusion of ‘control’ is present, remarkable things happen: natural movement begets better legato, scales, arpeggios, trills, and other technical elements, freeing students to actually play at tempi appropriate for the character of the music. After a short period of feeling ‘out of control’ (because of the removal of unnecessary resistance), real technical control and accomplishment skyrocket. And with these, so do the student’s self-esteem and motivation.
These musings may sound extravagant, originating from such a simple concept like the understanding of antagonistic muscles. But sometimes, before we can embark on a new voyage of discovery, we have to let go off of long held “truths.” In combined audiences of nearly two thousand teachers in recent years, not one person has claimed that it is easier (or is faster, or feels better) to hold the fingers curled and to move them quickly, versus the rapid, free alternation of flexors and extensors from the knuckles.
This information is also helpful when using a computer (or a violin, or cello, etc.) An unbalanced, faulty technique is also the root cause for most who develop repetitive motion injuries like tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome at the computer keyboard. And last week, I was approached by a teacher in Oklahoma who was worried about two of her adolescent students who had very sore arms from texting. When she imitated how they used their mini- keyboards, it was clear that their ‘technique’ was the culprit: hyperextended wrists (similar to when pianists play with wrists way too low), curled fingers, and excessive range of motion with the thumbs. Since these students are probably not going to give up texting, we explored ways that they can improve their technique, and how that would be a worthy—and even noble—usage of piano lesson time.